«The Russians Will Have No Safe Haven»: Analyst on Impact of the ATACMS on Ukrainian Counteroffensive and Main Differences Between Long-Range Capabilities

Interview with Federico Borsari — Defense Analyst, Leonardo Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), and NATO 2030 Global Fellow.

Interview with defence analyst Federico Borsari

On September 22, during negotiations in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden told Volodymyr Zelenskyy that Ukraine would receive a small number of ATACMS missiles. The other day, American officials said that the U.S. army is ready to quickly send missiles to Ukraine once Biden officially approves the transfer.

We spoke with an expert about what role long-awaited ATACMS missiles will play in Ukraine’s future counteroffensive operations, how American missiles differ from the British Storm Shadow (or their French variant SCALP-EG), which are already successfully used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and what features does the «drone warfare» have in the lack of a sufficient number of long-range weapons.

«I'm totally convinced that Ukraine needs ATACMS because it would allow to differentiate its arsenal. They would also provide the Ukrainian forces with a new type of capability that allows them to strike much deeper into occupied territories, including the entire Crimea.

There have been numerous and controversial discussions about the sensitivity of striking targets in Russia with Western-donated weapons. However, Ukraine has targeted objectives within Russian territory with its own drones, so I don’t see any specific problem with that. This is especially true when it comes to Crimea, which is legally and internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory. Therefore, Ukraine has every right to strike whatever military target it wants and needs to strike," Borsari said.

«It's very difficult to intercept the ATACMS missile in the terminal phase because it’s simply a matter of physics»

«Vchasno» news agency: What are the differences between SCALP-EG/Storm Shadow and ATACMS?

Federico Borsari: These are two different missiles, both in the way they are built, and also in the way they are delivered, or launched. The ATACMS missile is launched from the ground. And this is, in fact, a quasi-ballistic ground launch maneuvering missile. It means that its trajectory is similar to ballistic missiles, but its range is shorter and it is more maneuverable. Most likely Ukraine will receive a variant that has a 300-kilometer range, which is quite a lot. On the other hand, the SCALP-EG/Storm Shadow is launched from the air. Ukraine is launching those missiles from its Su-24 aircraft.

The second difference is in the trajectory. As I said, ATACMS is quasi-ballistic, so it has a trajectory that follows a high-altitude ballistic arc and then goes down very fast, whereas the Storm Shadow is launched from the air, goes down immediately, and then flies very low-level until it reaches the target.

ATACMS / photo: FDD

Storm Shadow / photo: Ukrainian Air Force

The third difference is in the type of warhead. Ukraine will likely receive a variant of the ATACMS Block 1 (it can be either the M39 or the M39A1), which basically is equipped with a warhead that is not a unitary type but is composed of a set of submunitions. And these can be either 950 or 300 M74 APAM (Anti-Personnel Anti-material) submunitions. At a certain altitude, they are released from the missile, fall on a specific target area, and explode right across this scattered wide area.

Conversely, the Storm Shadow or SCALP-EG has a unitary warhead and it strikes precisely at one single point. So, the effect it has on the target is different because it concentrates the penetrating power in a single point, and the power of the blast is more circumscribed, whereas the ATACMS with submunitions produce an area-effect. This means that these two missiles are ideal against different sets of targets.

The ATACMS is ideal for striking large targets, airfields, military installations, as well as troop staging points, concentrations of equipment and vehicles, air defense batteries, or air defense posts, for instance, in Crimea. The SCALP-EG/Storm Shadow is ideal for striking single targets like bridges or command posts. We have seen a very effective strike against the Command of the Russian Black Fleet in Sevastopol. That one was a very well-planned operation with Storm Shadow. The same goes for the strike against the Russian Navy in Sevastopol, a couple of weeks ago.

Strike against the Russian Black Fleet in Sevastopol

And the fourth difference is in their type of delivery tool. The ATACMS, given its ballistic trajectory, becomes very fast in the terminal phase. It can travel at a speed of Mach 3, so it means three times the speed of sound. And it’s very difficult to intercept the missile in the terminal phase because it’s simply a matter of physics. The reaction window for Russia is very narrow.

On the other hand, the SCALP-EG/Storm Shadow missiles travel at a speed of around Mach 0.8, so they fly much slower. Since they usually fly at a very low level, let’s say 50−75 meters from the ground sometimes, they can also be difficult to intercept. Where the Russians rely mostly on ground-based radars the Storm Shadow has more chances to reach its target because its low altitude reduce the probability of it being detected, tracked, and engaged by air defense systems. However, the Storm Shadow is also vulnerable in the initial phase and the terminal stage, when it goes up to attack the target from above.

The ATACMS is also easier to deploy because it can be launched from HIMARS trucks or M270 vehicles. This means that Ukraine can deploy and launch them very quickly and then relocate its launchers. The SCALP-EG/Storm Shadow needs a plane, and operators need to pre-plan the path of flight, and you have to arrive closer to the front line because it has a more limited range. We’re talking about 250 kilometers more or less compared to at least 300 kilometers for ATACMS. So it takes time.

The ATACMS is ideal if you have time-sensitive targets, like surface-to-air missiles that Russia may redeploy somewhere and you spot them with a drone or a satellite and need to strike them as soon as possible. If you know that Russians are about to move that vehicle or other things, the Storm Shadow is not ideal because it takes one hour and a half or even two hours to begin the mission and to have the missiles striking its target, and it’s more risk for the aircraft because it has to get closer to Russian air defenses' engagement zones.

So, Ukraine needs both ATACMS and SCALP-EG because they allow it to strike different targets with the right tools.

I think ATACMS will become a really big problem for Russian air defense because we have already seen how they «missed several calls» from Storm Shadow. And I don’t think that they know how to deal with ATACMS.

— The ATACMS could be vulnerable to air defense when the missile is at the highest point of its trajectory because it’s not yet in the terminal phase, which is the faster one. On paper, it could potentially be targeted at long range by most modern Russian air defense systems. We’re talking about the S-300 and S-400 family. But first, the Russians need to detect it with the radar and properly engage it. And if they are not very quick in deciding, it’s too late. Because as I said, in the terminal phase it’s very difficult to intercept. So I think the chances of ATACMS being intercepted are quite low, even with the best air defense system that Russia has, which is the S-400 in this case.

«The Russians will have no safe haven for their logistics, command, and control posts»

Will ATACMS play a significant role in future counteroffensive operations of Ukraine, for instance, some ground operations to liberate Crimea? With these missiles we can strike directly at the concentration of some equipment and personnel, right?

— You know, we hear the word «game changer» very often, but I’m not a big fan of that expression.

Yes, I also used this phrase in the question that I previously sent you.

You were right for asking it because it’s important to explain to the people why sometimes in the media or in the public discourse we hear about game changers in war, but it’s very rare to actually have it. Most weapons are not game changers, because they are used together with many other things, capabilities, and factors. So, there are very few game changers. Probably the nuclear weapon is a game changer, but for the rest, I think it’s not wise to use these words.

But the ATACMS, of course, could have a significant major impact in case of this conflict. Because we haven’t seen that kind of weapon being used by Ukraine yet. And Ukraine has been able to obtain very good results with less powerful or at least different weapons, including simple drones. So, first, I think, compared to other weapons, the impact of the ATACMS would be more significant because they are very precise. Their precision accuracy which is measured in circular error probable is considered around nine meters. This means that 50% of the launched missiles (based on trials statistics) will strike within nine meters from the target, which is a pinpoint accuracy, basically. The good thing is that in the case of the variant that will be likely provided to Ukraine, which is could be the M39A1 type of warhead made of different submunitions that fall in a specific target area, the area-effect will be widespread. And there is not even the issue of circular error probability because you need to deliver area-effect rather than a single pinpoint strike on a target like the Storm Shadow or SCALP, for instance.

But for the counteroffensive, I think the ATACMS would be very important because they will allow Ukraine to strike Russian high-value targets in depth. Ukraine will be able to strike Russian logistics and line of communications 300 kilometers beyond the line of contact. The whole of Crimea will be potentially under ATACMS threat. This means that the Russians will have no safe haven for their logistics, command, and control posts. Also, this means that Ukraine will be able to degrade their logistics, which is very important for the Russian way of warfare. Russian operations tend to be logistically intensive because they have a lot of equipment to move. Striking with ATACMS will degrade a lot the capacity of Russia to resupply its troops on the front line and to move new ammunitions and vehicles where they are needed. Striking command posts more in depth means the Russian forces' command and control network will be further degraded and it will hinder and complicate Russia’s capacity to plan operations.

And I think Ukraine can use ATACMS to destroy Russian air defense systems in Crimea, in Donbas, or other areas. This is crucial because in this way, Russia will not have its «air defense bubble» in place anymore, or it will be less effective. This means that Ukraine will be able to increase the use of its Air Force to support its troops. Ukraine will also be able to use more missiles without the risk of them being intercepted. It will be very important to also degrade the air defense system of Crimea in order to prepare the ground for more operations with drones or any other assets.

So, in terms of the impact on the counteroffensive, ATACMS can increase the pressure on Russia’s military structure and create more and more problems for Russia in sustaining its operations and defense.

In your opinion, will the transfer of the ATACMS to Ukraine somehow change the politics of other countries on providing long-range weapons? I mean, maybe the German government will change its mind about Taurus missiles or something. What other countries have in their stock that can be provided to Ukraine after the big decision made by the U.S.

— In the case of Taurus, you mentioned rightly, it seems that Germany is waiting for the U.S. approval of providing ATACMS. We know that the German government has been worried about potential escalation if it provides much longer-range weapons to Ukraine. So I think probably, it’s similar to the tanks situation when the U.S. decided to provide the Abrams somewhere in January this year, then Germany followed this and decided to provide the Leopard. I don’t share this approach. But if the U.S. decides to provide ATACMS, I’m quite confident that Germany will then provide the Taurus.

Taurus missile / photo: 5th Channel

Now, there is this debate about the issue for Germany to train Ukrainians on how to use the Taurus, whereas some German officials have said it’s complicated because you need to have Ukrainians that know German to use the software of the system. But actually, these are bad excuses, in my opinion.

Ukrainians have been able to learn very fast, basically everything. They are undergoing training for F-16s. So I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be able to learn how to use Taurus in two, three weeks, or one months, whatever time it takes to learn. And also I assume it’s possible to change the language in the software. I don’t see why they couldn’t turn the software into Ukrainian. Anyway, I’m sure Germany at the end will provide a Taurus as well and this is very good news because the Taurus is yet another type of missile compared to both the ATACMS and the SCALP-EG.

I think it’s very similar to the SCALP but it has a longer range, around 450 kilometers. They are launched from the air so I don’t think it’s a problem because we have seen that Ukraine has been able to integrate the SCALP-EG in its Air Force already, so it will do so with the Taurus as well.

Taurus missiles can be used to target, for instance, bridges, strategic reinforced buildings, bunkers, and other very high-value targets. It’s very capable. And it’s probably one of the best in-depth strike capabilities that countries in Europe now possess. So it will be a very significant addition to Ukraine’s arsenal, together with ATACMS.

Overall, I think ATACMS could pave the way for new weapons. We also need to remember that in autumn, Ukraine should receive the ground-launched small-diameter bomb (GLSDB) from the U.S., which has a 150 km range. This one will be a very important capability. It is launched from the ground, by the HIMARS vehicle so it’s very quick to deploy. It will be great for use at operational range against Russian targets in Donbas and Zaporizhzhia.

GLSDB / photo: YouTube EngineerReact

«Drones are intended to be a force multiplier»

— You mentioned drones so let’s talk about drone warfare. We see how Ukraine effectively uses cheap drones to target some really expensive Russian targets. So what are the main features of this war in terms of using drones?

— The war in Ukraine has been the first conflict in which drones have been used on such a large scale on the battlefield. Quite a lot of drones were used also in Libya, in Syria, in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the scale of it in Ukraine is completely on another level. And it’s not that much about the quality of the drones being used, but it’s about the quantity. Reports indicate that Ukraine loses approximately 10,000 drones per month, which is an incredibly high number.

And these include all types of drones from high-end TB2 drones flying very high with a lot of capabilities to FPV drones that are $ 500 worth and flying very fast but not too far.

In the context of the current military operations in Ukraine, drones are intended to be a force multiplier. We have seen that they are becoming increasingly important, because Ukraine doesn’t have enough long-range strike capabilities, or because Ukraine doesn’t have enough ammunition supplies to continue using artillery at the scale it would like to. So, Ukraine has to resort to different means, in this case, drones. They are both force multipliers and a main tool for Ukrainians in certain areas and specific cases to strike against Russian forces.

I don’t share the idea that drones will become a weapon that can replace other capabilities, for instance, artillery. But of course, in specific situations, FPV drones have been very useful in destroying hidden targets in trenches or striking against targets beyond the line of sight, like moving trucks or tanks. And artillery cannot do so. You have very few capabilities that can strike moving targets at tactical depth and that are quickly deployable by troops. Also loitering munitions like, for instance, the Russian Lancet-3, have been very useful and effective, unfortunately. And this must be recognized.

And yes, two or three $ 500 drones can destroy a tank worth 5 million like the T-90M, which is Russia’s most modern tank deployed in Ukraine. And we shouldn’t forget that drones have been crucial in providing ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) for situational awareness since the very start of the invasion. They have provided constant monitoring of the battlefield. Everyone knows what others are doing basically everywhere. There is a constant presence of drones all across the front line and beyond it.

Drones have an impact on expanding the potential of other capabilities, in this case, artillery. There is kind of a symbiotic relationship between drones and observation by drones and artillery. Ukraine has been a master of using this through its digital targeting apps.

More about the lessons in drone warfare you can find in the analysis «An Urgent Matter of Drones» by Federico Borsari and Gordon B. «Skip» Davis, Jr.

What do you think NATO countries should learn from the Ukrainian way of using drones? I mean, Ukraine demonstrates a very specific and unique approach to using modern technologies on the battlefield. So what can be adapted by other countries?

— First of all, we need to learn from Ukraine how to produce so many drones or how to acquire so many of them and so fast. We are not yet in that mindset. You know, our industries have been hindered by years of underinvestment and we are still in this mindset of decades of peace dividends that we have enjoyed in Europe.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014 and knows precisely how important it is to prepare. It has been very quick in changing its bureaucratic framework, regulations, and requirements to adopt and integrate military technology. So now Ukraine is very quick in defining the capability, testing it on the ground, monitoring how it works, and then integrating it into the military. Also, by changing the structure of the military Ukraine has created specialized units within different parts of the military, like in the Navy, for instance, with the undersurface drones and uncrewed surface vessels. And now Ukraine is doing so also in the ground forces with specialized units that employ drones. This is an organic integration of drones. So, in Europe, we need to take stock of what Ukraine has done. Ukraine has been fantastic in a matter of how quickly it prototypes and then delivers the capability to the units on the ground.

The second lesson is that we need to really understand that quantity is also very important. It’s not just about the quality of the weapon; in some cases, you need a large number of systems. You need mass. The expenditure rate of drones in Ukraine has shown that European countries and NATO members need to increase production or simply acquire more drones for their militaries to prepare for potential conflicts with adversaries in the future. It requires a lot of drones because many are lost even on the first day of conflict, due to electronic warfare and many other reasons. We see on social media all the successful videos of drone operations, but at the same time there is a double or even higher number of lost drones or failures, so we don’t know how many drones Ukraine or Russia lose per day. But we can imagine that for two or three successful strikes there are ten or more that are not successful.

And I think there is a third lesson we should learn from Ukraine, which is the role of the private sector and of the civil society. Volunteer organizations, crowdfunding, private companies that are helping the military besides the public sector, and the public framework. I think this is crucial and it is a lesson that we should really internalize in the West. How to make our societies more prepared to sustain warfare through the collaboration between the public sector and the private sector.

Photo: the Armed Forces of Ukraine Facebook page

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